Spike Milligan once said “My father had a profound influence on me, he was a lunatic”
My own father was a stoic and authoritative figure and there was a time when he would sit me down, look me in the eye and tell me the secrets of the world. We used to sit in the rickety old porch at the front of our house where a snapping drunken breeze would curl under the door and in through the cracks in windows so thin, we were afraid to look through them in case they shattered. As the night plopped its head down, he would send me out to close the gate, so no more wind would get in. We had a ten year old Nissan Cherry, rusting proudly in the drive way – I’m sure he saw the lascivious looks other motorists gave it and knew the local thieves had it marked on their list. Dublin in the eighties was a dangerous place, full of “characters” – men who never worked, wore the same tracksuit pants every day, had slouched faces, missing teeth and were always in a hurry to the pub. We would look out at the passing traffic, miserable looking people crowded onto heavily smoking double-decker buses, making their way into town and trudging slowly home again.
I’m not sure if God was bored or angry when he created Ireland, but he could have given us a little sun. It was always the same – Calming shades of various grey clouds would nestle through the sky. Rain would spray down gently at first, just a little smattering of drizzly mist. You might look at the gathering storm clouds of the Apocalypse and think, ha, maybe just a shower. But then a scud-like surge of rackety heaven water would explode, pegging the dust down, causing all animals to scatter for their two or four legged lives. Then a monstrous deluge would erupt, scaring the plum sauce out of the few ducks left braving the elements. This torrent of Biblical proportions would thrash itself against the fragile frame of our house – even the milk bottles would now have found their way back inside.
This is what makes the Irish you meet overseas happy. When it rains in a city like Auckland, it reminds you of your home country and it makes you feel good inside. When it stays sunny for the summertime it reminds you of how good it is not to be constantly feeling wet and miserable and it too makes you feel good inside.
My Dad would not flinch when the rains came. Instead he would slowly turn to me and his cloudy blue eyes would break when he did. He would stroke his peppered grey beard, put his Esperanto notebook away and when he wanted to emphasize a point his finger would lift and arrow straight for my chest, hovering like a magical dagger
“Son”, he would say, “there are two ways to do things in life, the right way and the wrong way…when you do it the right way you do it with pride and with fire in the belly”.
I would stare at his finger, then back to his head, marvelling at how the brylcream seemed to slick his comb over into one slab of hair, like a long breaking wave, frozen onto his bald scalp. His head would turn ever so slightly, his brow furrowing a tad indicating I needed to respond. I would shift in my seat, the old chair scraping against the broken grey green slate underneath, nodding and saying yes, hoping I could escape before he realised.
My father though, always did realise. He realised the one fact I dreaded him realising more than any other – my hair was long. Too long. To the untrained eye or ear, this may seem an innocuous fact, but let me rest assure you it is not. Now read on.
My father’s eyes would narrow a little more, glaze over again and then before I had the chance to utter a nibble of a syllable of a syllable, the shout would go up
“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLENNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN”, he would roar down the hall to my mother
My mother would come down and would know by the tone of the shout what was in store for her son.
“I think John needs a haircut, can you get the stuff please”
My gut would drop. The stuff entailed a bag of second hand shirts which were buried in a big plastic bag at the bottom of a musty old cupboard – they were covered with years of hair, never washed and when you put them on your bare skin was akin to scraping nails down the blackboard of your spine, covered in ants and ticks you could never scratch. There was a scissors too, as sharp as a box of soap, which my Dad used to tear bluntly through my hair.
I would sit chattering and crying from the cold and the fear as the scissor’ cold metal goose-bumped me, the wind froze me and the hair tickled my neck and back. Occasionally my father would show some humanity by nicking my ear or neck, drawing some blood and warmth to the area.
When the deed was done, the shout would go up, this time though, it would be my shrill soprano voice
Down the hall my mother would come again, this time with the vacuum cleaner in tow. The shirt would drop to the ground and I would feel the suction of the hose taking away the pain and torturous discomfort. I would be shivering hard from the adrenalin and mild hypothermia.
My mother would tell us that dinner was nearly ready and when we had cleaned up to come down to the kitchen to eat. The incessant rain would pour. I would slowly stop crying. My Dad would wipe the blades of the scissors clean and we would speak of it no more.
I would stand up and release the brakes on his wheelchair and begin to wheel him backwards, careful not to knock his elbows against the piles of junk and furniture stacked deep either side of the hall.
My Dad was what you’d call as strong man. He was reared in Dublin in the forties and fifties when young lads with nobbled knees and blazers would roam the inner city streets, playing conkers with horse chestnuts, football in parks now reserved for tourists and chasing girls at the dances at the weekend. It was a time of simpler values. Men had nicknames like bruiser and chopper and women were there for their men. The streets of Dublin were free from the traffic, noise and people that pollute it today. There was less money around, yet people seemed to make do. They had a sense of simple happiness which was a continual antidote to the massive wars and troubles which dominated the globe.
My father promised that if I believed in myself and pushed myself that I could do anything I wanted. He would tell me the ways of the world, stories about his halcyon days, how to talk to people in business and what it takes to be a success in anything.
He told me about how when diagnosed with MS in his late twenties, his world collapsed. He was given fifteen years to live. His world fell apart, but not for long. He adapted and thought long and hard about how to live the life he wanted. He made sacrifices to give himself every chance to succeed. He found an amazing woman to spend it with and created a home for five loved children. He gave us every opportunity we ever wanted and believed in us like a father should. He did it all from the confines of a wheelchair. He outlived the doctor’s predictions by forty years. How he did this is a story for another day.
Never once did I hear him complain, begrudge or lament. He accepted his fate and created a destiny in his own image. He taught me though example that sacrifice, hard work and positivity are the way to beat anything. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. When I think of those haircuts now I know there were many things happening I didn’t realise at the time. The lasting image is I have is this – A man triumphing over all odds to cut his son’s hair in the porch of his own house. Someday I hope to do the same myself…..